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The author describes clearly the sources of the continuing Angolan armed conflict, which has risen to new level of violence in the past year. There are many resources and much power needing to be shared. The Lusaka Protocol did not get full-hearted support, and so war has broken out again. U.N. sanctions are in place, but not yet applied effectively Eventually there will have to be negotiations, and some way of sharing found, even decentralization or regional autonomy, in order to achieve unity, stability and development, so all may benefit from the resources. (jds/jk)

vol 15 no 1

Angola: A Backgrounder
Ian S Spears

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 15 No 1, December 1999
Page 7



Ian Spears teaches political science (international relations, politics and development) at the University of Toronto.

In December 1998, Angola's fragile peace once again gave way to all out war between UNITA and the governing MPLA. The Lusaka Protocol, signed in November 1994, became just another temporary respite from Angola's long history of violent conflict. Since independence in 1975, peace has been almost unknown to most Angolans. Only twice since then has an uneasy peace interrupted the violence: for a brief period in 1991-2 and from November 1994 to December 1998. Why has peace been so elusive in Angola?

During the cold war, both the United States and the Soviet Union saw geopolitical value in Angola. Both provided advisers and billions of dollars in military aid to their respective local clients, UNITA and the MPLA. Despite the end of the cold war, however, there remain many other reasons for paying attention to Angola.

Of humanitarianism ... and minerals

The first is Angola's increasing - and largely avoidable - humanitarian crisis. The return to war has exacerbated an already difficult internal refugee problem. The number of displaced Angolans had risen to 800,000 by May of this year and to an estimated 1 million by June - almost one-tenth of Angola's total population. Maria Flynn, a United Nations official, told Reuters news agency that "we have a combination of no food, inadequate transportation and a growing number of beneficiaries. If that is not a recipe for disaster, I don't know what is."

Another notable feature of Angola is its wealth which can be found in, among other things, its enormous supply of oil and diamonds. Current production of about 750,000 barrels of oil per day is expected to double in the next decade. As Africa's second largest producer of oil, Angola provides the United States with 7 per cent of its oil imports. Angola's diamonds are among the highest quality and most sought-after gemstones in the world. On a trip to Angola in 1997 one diamond dealer reckoned that its mineral resources were worth "ten times" those of South Africa's rapidly depleting wealth. "You have no idea of the potential wealth here," he kept repeating. "It's unbelievable." Indeed, according to Lee Barker, the vice-president of Southern Era Resources Ltd. in Toronto, Angola's diamonds are plentiful and second in quality only to Namibia's off-shore diamonds.

But a country that has the potential to be an African success story is instead one of Africa's most notorious humanitarian disasters. The most recent violence is the latest of three phases of conflict in post-independence Angola. The first took place from independence in 1975 until the signing of the Bicesse Accords in 1991. When the cold war ended and an increasingly reform-minded South Africa extricated itself from its regional commitments, there was an expectation that the struggle between UNITA and the MPLA might resolve itself. Indeed, with superpower assistance, an agreement eventually signed by the government and UNITA in Bicesse, Portugal, led to elections in September 1992.

When UNITA lost the elections - which were judged free and fair by the United Nations - it resumed fighting. UNITA had not demobilized as required under the Bicesse Accords and sought to use military pressure to win political concessions from the government. The government did not regain the upper hand in the ensuing war until it invested over a billion dollars in new weaponry and hired Executive Outcomes, the notorious firm of former South African soldiers, to resurrect its armed forces.

Lusaka, and after

The Lusaka Protocol marked the end of this second phase of violent conflict. Under the stewardship of the United Nations special representative to the secretary general, Alioune Blondin Beye, the protocol sought to avoid many of the pitfalls of the Bicesse Accords. The agreement called on UNITA to accept the results of the 1992 elections, to disarm and demobilize its forces, and to hand over territory it controlled to the government. In return, the government would open a new "political space" in which it would share political power and economic wealth with the UNITA rebels in a government of unity and national reconciliation (GURN). The fact that genuine debate could be heard within parliament gave hope of democracy taking root in Angola.

But the situation increasingly had an uncomfortable feeling of nem guerra, nem paz: neither war nor peace. Careful to ensure that Savimbi would not be catch it so unprepared again, the government undertook its own regional initiatives to contain its adversary. Internationally, it ensured that Angola's neighbours were surrounded by regimes friendly to or installed by Luanda. On the domestic front, the government looked to disenchanted members of UNITA who were willing to break with Savimbi and create an alternative political movement. This allowed the government to maintain the image of power-sharing while effectively sidelining the uncooperative and mercurial Jonas Savimbi.

Savimbi, as it turns out, never bought into the new agreement either. A government offensive following the initialing of the Lusaka Accord only gave Savimbi's view another excuse to say that the government could not be trusted. In the subsequent demobilization process, much of the equipment handed in by UNITA was no longer serviceable, and many of the soldiers entering the demobilization camps were reportedly too young or too old to be fighters. Many believed that Savimbi retained a residual force of fighters and military hardware as insurance against further government offensives or to launch one of his own.

UNITA was particularly intransigent, however, when it came to handing over the diamond-rich territories under its control. It was UNITA's refusal to return the towns of Bailundo and Andulo - as they had agreed to do with all territories under the Lusaka Protocol - that finally undermined any semblance of co-operation between UNITA and the government. The final blow to the peace process was the unexplained death of Alioune Blondin Beye in June 1998 in a plane crash.

War ... and power-sharing

The government offensive came on December 4, 1998. But since it was no secret that a strike had been planned, UNITA was prepared. It not only blocked the government offensive but began to push government troops back using heavy artillery and anti-aircraft missiles. "The government made a wrong decision in attacking us," noted UNITA's secretary general, Paulo Gato, "and we are merely paying them back in their own currency." The government's chief of staff, alarmed at the unexpected battlefield reversals, publicly admitted that his troops were in trouble and conceded that the "scale had tipped in favour of Jonas Malheiro Sidonio Savimbi's forces." War had returned to Angola.

Under siege, the government accused the United Nations Observer Mission of failing to monitor UNITA's disarmament and demobilization effectively. For the United Nations, which had committed US$1.5 billion and 7,000 peacekeepers to the Angolan peace process, the breakdown of the Lusaka Protocol was an embarrassment. For its part, UNITA argued that it was the partisan perspective of the international community over the imposition of sanctions and its consent to an offensive against UNITA that encouraged the government to initiate the latest violence. While the international community may have to accept some blame, there are other domestic explanations for this most recent breakdown of the peace process.

First, the Angolan case makes clear just how inherently difficult it is to share power. In fact, despite its appeal, there are relatively few examples in Africa or elsewhere where formalized power-sharing agreements have been implemented or even negotiated between two military adversaries. Interestingly, UNITA officials insist that Jonas Savimbi had reconciled himself to the prospect of some sort of power-sharing arrangement. Jardo Muekalia, UNITA's representative to Washington, stated in an interview that Savimbi had informed the UNITA leadership of his willingness to accept a role in a new power-sharing structure "as long as it was not simply to cut ribbons." Muekalia claims, however, that "from the government's point of view, the idea was simply, look, you come here, we give you the vice-presidency, we give you five Mercedes ... and just forget about everything else. From that perspective, it [was] difficult for somebody like [Savimbi] to take it. It is very hard to simply come out and to say now you are the vice-president but all you do is you wake up in the morning, you read the papers and then you look at your Mercedes."

In short, in the most recent Angolan context, power-sharing failed because the government was reluctant to offer up a meaningful stake in Angola's political process while Savimbi was unwilling to consider anything less (and in any case, the government feared, might very well still want a great deal more!)

Diamonds and such

A second problem is, of course, that Angola's considerable oil and diamond wealth only increases the stakes associated with political power and the need to control it. On a continent where the achievement of political office provides access to the country's economic resources, individuals and parties cannot afford to be left out of the political process. "The diamond issue is the key for UNITA because it determines the survival of the party," noted Jardo Muekalia in a recent interview. "You cannot survive as a political party if you do not have funds. Most of the political opposition parties in Africa die of financial asphyxiation before they die of political asphyxiation."

From the government perspective, however, diamonds were not simply used to ensure UNITA's political survival but to rebuild its military might so that it might eventually undermine the peace process. Now UNITA has had to find innovative ways to circumvent sanctions imposed by the United Nations. De Beers is on record as saying that it is no longer buying UNITA diamonds. Given the nature of the industry, however, and the resourcefulness of the sellers, revenue from diamonds can still be acquired. The origin of diamonds can be difficult to trace; diamonds change hands through so many middlemen that they are eventually "washed" of their location of origin. According to one diamond executive, "the diamond you see on someone's hand in Toronto could have gone through ten steps before getting there." Moreover, there is speculation that, in the end, De Beers cannot afford not to purchase diamonds from Angola. In October 1997, Gary Ralfe, the executive director of De Beers, noted that one of his company's "essential jobs" was to "ensure that diamonds coming onto the markets do not threaten the overall price structure." While he claimed not to know of any direct relationship with UNITA, he acknowledged that "there is no doubt that we buy many of those diamonds that emanate from the UNITA-held areas in Angola, second-hand on the markets of Antwerp and Tel Aviv." For more on this issue see the accompanying article: "Diamonds are a war's best friend," below.]

Diamond wealth also means that government officials can be bought off or persuaded to look the other way. Numerous reports have circulated which suggest that even Angola's generals have been corrupted and collude with UNITA if there are sufficient diamonds and money on the table. In other words, it is difficult to stop the transfer of weaponry or the supply of fuel oil - the latter has long been seen as a point of vulnerability for UNITA - to belligerents because in a country of such poverty and insecurity virtually everyone has a price and can have their loyalty purchased. In a war economy, then, Angola's fabulous wealth does little to slow the pace of war; indeed, it does much to sustain it.

It is doubtful that a new political agreement will occur any time soon. UNITA claims it is open to new negotiations with the government. But, having attempted a negotiated settlement with UNITA twice already, the government is adamantly opposed to a third. What, then, is the way forward for Angola?

There are members of UNITA who are amenable to the existing peace agreement; the problem is that negotiating with those who do not have the guns does not stop the fighting. Accordingly, the government and the international community face a conundrum. Savimbi's actions have led to a situation in which he has disqualified himself from a political route to the presidency and has no other way to political power except through military means. Yet his ability to deliver peace is contingent on his inclusion in the political process. One diplomat noted in an interview that the position of much of the international community is that "only Savimbi can deliver the peace, whether or not he is the bad guy." He added: "You have to negotiate with him even if you can defeat him - and you will never defeat him militarily." Savimbi may, indeed, be the key to peace. Yet, given his record, many Angolans are reluctant to have him lead a post-conflict Angola.


On the other hand, there are continuing calls for a more robust enforcement of sanctions against UNITA. One diamond mining executive claims that UNITA's weakness lies in its logistics and fuel supplies. "If there was the will to shut [UNITA] down over a six month period, it could be done," he stated in a recent interview. Local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and diplomats are considering innovative means of limiting UNITA's military power which rely on sophisticated methods of surveillance of potential UNITA supply lines, including radar and satellite technology and ground-based observation posts in border areas and airports in neighbouring countries. There are also proposals for greater reliance on other institutional watchdogs to monitor financial sanctions against UNITA and to encourage greater corporate responsibility among companies who may be doing business with UNITA officials.

The irony of sanctions at this point is that they are being imposed against a rebel movement, UNITA, that has at least stated a willingness to negotiate with a government which is no longer willing to negotiate. Moreover, in the short-term, improved sanctions enforcement is akin to closing the barn door after the horse has escaped and to assisting the government to wage its war. There is hope, nonetheless, that over the longer term sanctions may have a positive effect. The Canadian chair of the United Nations Angolan sanctions committee, Robert Fowler, responds to ridicule (some of which comes from UNITA itself) that sanctions are easily circumvented by saying: "I am not dreaming in technicolour. I do not believe that the sanctions are going to end the war in Angola. But they may degrade UNITA's ability to fight." Indeed, the objective has always been to close off the military option and leave open the political option, the democratic option.

Since most observers agree that a negotiation process will be involved sooner or later, what is now required is new thinking on the kind of political settlement that might finally end the cycle of war in Angola. Successful resolution will come only if the leaders and the international community are prepared to consider some new conception of the African state. Some might wish to argue, for example, that radical decentralization, regional autonomy, or even geographical division of the country are plausible and/or desirable options. In any event, if a realistic and acceptable solution is not found soon, Angolans and the international community will have to live with what may truly be an interminable war.

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